Generally, when it comes to student interaction with an instructor; everyone hopes for the best. However, that is not always what occurs. There are various challenges that can enter the classroom and sometimes, those challenges can be interpersonal interactions with our students. Difficult behavior can be intimidating and stressful for all involved, but with the proper tools equipped; navigating the waters of developing problems can be relatively smooth sailing.
The first thing any instructor must be able to do is recognize developing problematic behaviors early on so they may be addressed before they become larger, long term issues for everyone involved. Reports of problematic behaviors are “on the rise nationally, not only in the classroom but in society at large.” (Kowalski, 2003) They can start innocuously with behavior that may be classified as immature, irritating, or otherwise thoughtless in nature. Some of these behaviors can include but are not limited to: grand-standing, inappropriately timed personal conversations, sleeping during instruction, arriving to class late and/or unprepared, inability to pay attention, any and all verbal or physical threats toward peers and instructors, undermining the instructor’s authority, and numerous other “infractions.”
There are actions that may take place that will not seem like a direct issue but can easily develop into a full-blown problem. Consider question and answer sessions that devolve into general grand-standing and argumentativeness. In these cases, the problematic student can convey a sense of hostility that can invade the entire classroom and make for an unpleasant experience for all involved. These types of environments can serve to undermine the instructor and create an imbalance in the classroom. While these students can be mentally and/or intellectually trying, there are others still that are problematic in a less obvious manner that can affect just the student involved. This can include students that do not arrive on time to class and when they do arrive, they are underprepared and lack attentiveness. This might not distract the entire class, but it is enough to hold back instruction to deal with the issue.
Some of the most problematic behaviors come from students that choose to be completely uncivil and outwardly hostile. These students are described as angry and/or defiant. They are prone to outbursts and in some cases, even threats or acts of violence. These types of students are the most obviously problematic and in utilizing overt hostility as a way of interacting can put everyone at risk. Equally worrying, but for entirely different reasons are the students that are the opposing end of the emotional scale from the angry student. These students have emotional outbursts that are inappropriate, but not immediately threatening to outsiders and can be contributed to problems that may be social or psychological.
As you can see, there are numerous behaviors that can fall under the problematic umbrella and each issue requires instructors to intervene in different ways. With an argumentative student, how an instructor responds to the challenge will set the pattern for the future. These students present instructors with a “teachable moment.” Instructors can approach the issue logically and challenge the student’s position, inviting them to elaborate and defend their stance through well-thought out scholarly debate. For students that are struggling, offering some form of supplemental instruction and/or tutoring can be very helpful. Students can address their issues in a more one-on-one environment without a fear of judgment from their peers.
In the case of the inattentive or under-prepared student, methods of intervention are simple. The instructor can simply move the students to the front row of the classroom or can be spot-lighted to answer a question. Sometimes, a nudge is all a student needs in this situation. For more frequent offenders, the instructor can call for them to stay after class and address them and their behavior directly. These are direct and to the point solutions that can resolve the issues.
Harder to resolve are problems that stem from an emotional and/or psychological place. Some corrections can take place through creation of classroom rules and others might need outside help to be remedied. Fight emotional behavior with calm, rational interaction. De-escalating the situation might calm a student that “masks fear with anger.” In cases of grade issues, take time to step away and review the work and see if there can be a peaceful resolution.
There are many ways to motivate a student, but it is important to consider the do’s and do not’s of working with students that might be otherwise frustrated and/or unmotivated. An instructor can work with a growth mindset to help bolster the confidence of the student. Working in Self-Determination Theory, we can assume that students are less motivated when one or more of a student’s needs are not being met. (Grolnick, 2018) What are those needs? Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. Things you want to do are to make sure that students feel that they have some choice in their own actions. In addition, ask yourself; does the student feel pressured or pushed? Are they feeling incapable of completing a task? Does the student feel valued? How an instructor answers those questions will be how the situation is approached. Instructors can give a student choice for assignments. They might decide to break the task down into small portions or encourage them to interact with each other.
In the most serious of cases, students might need outside assistance in a professional intervention. An instructor can contact a mental health professional through the National Academic Advising Association. There are materials for everyone to consult and overviews of common problems. Beyond that, students should be brought to the clinic with a trusted adult. If a student seems unwilling to get help, it is the instructor’s responsibility to call university health services for wellness check-ups. Sometimes all a student needs are “the idea that someone really cares … can be enough to get the student through.” (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2014)
Grolnick, W. (2018) Motivating the Unmotivated Student. Retrieved from: http://psychlearningcurve.org/motivating-the-unmotivated-student/
Kowalski, R. M. (2003). Complaining, teasing, and other annoying behaviors. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
McKeachie, W. J. & Svinicki, M. (2014). Mckeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers(14th ed.). Retrieved from https://www.vitalsource.com/: